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Bucket List: Northwestern in the Big Dance? Illinois in turmoil?

Can Northwestern get into the tourney at 9-9 in the Big Ten? Doesn't look like it. (AP/Nati Harnik)

This week, it’s a Big Ten-heavy Bucket List. So sue me. Ten observations on the college basketball season:

1. I’ve received some questions lately from readers wanting to know how many Big Ten victories would get Northwestern into the NCAA Tournament. A couple of readers have asked specifically if 9-9 would do the trick.

Short answer: It would be a long shot.

Really, though, it’s more about the quality of the Wildcats’ victories from this point that it is about the quantity. This still is a team without a signature win. With Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa coming up three in a row, that could change. If it doesn’t change, forget about the Big Dance unless Chris Collins’ team makes magic happen at the league tourney in Indianapolis.

For what it’s worth, CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm told the Bucket List on Thursday that the Big Ten has six — maybe seven — teams with realistic tourney hopes. Northwestern wasn’t even the “maybe.” That’s bleak.

2. Palm and ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had the same six Big Ten teams — Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue, Indiana and Michigan — in their respective brackets this week. In a somewhat down season for the conference, six does seem like the likeliest final number. There have been six or seven Big Ten teams in each of the last five tourneys.

3. Which of the Big Ten’s surprise co-leaders — Indiana or Iowa — has a better chance to build on a 6-0 start in league play and win the regular-season title? I’m going with the Hawkeyes, the main reason being their schedule is much friendlier in February and March.

4. The truth is, it’ll surprise me if Indiana or Iowa wins the Big Ten. Maryland is my pick. (Sorry if I’m starting to sound like a broken record.) The Terrapins could stand to play with more consistency, but they’re 6-1 in league play and clearly have the best talent in the league — and a born closer in point guard Melo Trimble.

But this is a coach-off between Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, Indiana’s Tom Crean et al., and it’s going to be a ton of fun. The Big Ten misses Bo Ryan, but will another coach step forward and eventually stand alongside Michigan State’s Tom Izzo as only Ryan did?

5. We probably haven’t been talking enough about Maryland freshman center Diamond Stone, who might have the brightest future of any player in the Big Ten. The 6-11 Stone is only sixth on the Terps in minutes per game (20.4), but he’s second in scoring (13.5) and shooting about 60 percent from the field and 80 percent from the foul line. Who’s stopping this dude come March?

6. Why is Michigan State, a loser of three straight, struggling so bad? Izzo admits to having done a poor job of helping his team adjust defensively to new rules designed to decrease allowable contact on and off the ball. (Bleacher Report’s C.J. Moore wrote a terrific story about it this week.) The handsy-as-ever Spartans have been called for more fouls than all but one Big Ten team.

7. Illinois hit a real low in Tuesday’s 103-69 defeat at Indiana, after which coach John Groce publicly questioned his players’ character, toughness and love of the game. Many Illini fans are stiffening in their opposition to Groce; some accuse him of making too many excuses, while others claim he has lost his team. It’s not a pretty picture at all. Is it the beginning of the end?

8. The Big 12 has been celebrated almost non-stop since its league slate got underway, and for good reason — the games, featuring a lot of excellent teams, have been spectacularly fun.

But the Big 12 doesn’t have much at all on the Big East. Too many basketball fans still don’t even know who’s in the recently remade Big East. Suffice it to say, it’s a rock-solid list of teams — Villanova, Xavier, Providence, Georgetown, Butler — that play exciting basketball and have been dealing in hotly contested games for weeks on end. Don’t be surprised if a couple of Big East squads crash the Elite Eight.

9. Just sayin’: There’s a word for anyone who truly believes that Duke freshman Brandon Ingram should be drafted ahead of LSU freshman Ben Simmons, and that word is “bat-stuff crazy.” Ingram is a marvelous talent, but Simmons is a superstar. Think: a taller, tougher, far-more-refined version of Blake Griffin.

10. If you’re looking for someone to root for the rest of the season, let Emmanuel Omogbo be your guy. The Colorado State junior forward lost his parents, a niece and a nephew in a horrible house fire on Tuesday. Omogbo has played in a game and granted multiple media requests since then, which strikes me as simply incredible. Yet an unimaginably difficult road lies ahead.

Follow me on Twitter@slgreenberg.